Dan Rattiner's Stories

1956: A Car Trip on Montauk Highway in That Year

So here is what the Montauk Highway was like back in 1956 when, as a teenager, my parents first moved with me and my younger sister to the Hamptons.

First of all, there was getting here from New York City. The Long Island Expressway was here back then, thank God. Six lanes with nobody on it that ended, well, at Great Neck. They were just building it and everything was all steam shovels and backhoes, and you’d shift over to the service road, which was now called by the name that this route had been before the LIE came through: the Horace Harding Boulevard.

In 1956, you eased by the old World’s Fair grounds. I am talking about the 1939 World’s Fair, not the ’64. And there was no Shea Stadium yet. The Brooklyn Dodgers had moved to LA. The New York Mets had not yet arrived.

After the LIE ended, you could switch over to the Southern State Parkway, which took you out toward the farmlands of central and eastern Long Island. Because the Parkway ended at Sayville, just west of Patchogue, the good folks of Patchogue had billboards put up just before you got there, readable from Route 27, which declared VISIT PATCHOGUE, LONG ISLAND’S BIGGEST SHOPPING CENTER. It was bigger than the one in Riverhead, the only other shopping center Out East.

It took four hours to drive from Manhattan to the end of the Island. One went along the narrow two-lane road of Route 27 through every small town after Patchogue. These included Shirley—a billboard read COME LIVE IN SHIRLEY (and there was a picture of a happy family living there)—and Mastic, the Moriches, Eastport, Speonk, Remsenburg and Westhampton. In many places, fingers of water from Moriches Bay came up almost to touch Route 27 and at their headwaters there were duck farms. You could stop, get out of the car with your kids, and, holding your nose because of the terrible smell, feed the ducks by dropping bits of bread over the turkey wire that prevented them from wandering out into the road.

Route 27 wiggled leisurely past Westhampton and the Quogues, and frankly not much has changed along that route, now called Route 27A to this day. At the Shinnecock Canal there were two narrow bridges side by side to get across. One was the railroad bridge, the other a bridge for cars. Since there wasn’t much traffic, the narrow bridge worked fine.

The first of many large old hotels with ballrooms and dining rooms sat on the western side of the Shinnecock Canal. It was called the Canoe Place Inn. Many gangsters, movie stars and politicians frequented this place. It was still in its heyday. Today it is a falling-down ruin.

I think it is worth thinking at this point about the fact that there was no big broad bridge bearing the Sunrise Highway across the Shinnecock to continue on to County Road 39. There WAS no County Road 39. It was all back roads through there. All those big buildings on that road today—the Omni, the big car dealerships, the 7-Eleven, the Burger King, the office buildings and even Dan’s Papers—none of them had yet been built.

Instead, after crossing the canal on the old bridge, Route 27 (now 27A) turned to the right and followed along the shoreline of Shinnecock Bay. A hotel called the Scotch Mist Inn stood high on a hill along that way. It was on nearly 80 acres of property. Today that is Southampton College and the Inn is the administration building. Just past it and across the street was the Shinnecock Reservation. Small roads led into it. On every one was a sign reading KEEP OUT.

And so, all traffic, headed for Bridgehampton, East Hampton and Montauk crossed the Shinnecock Canal bridge, and went down Hill Street right into the center of Southampton village. There was a traffic light here at Hampton Road and Main Street, the first since the Hampton Bays. You continued on down Hampton Road and headed straight through all the farm fields and down a hill to pass the little hamlet of Water Mill. There was the Penny Candy store, the Post Office and a grocery store just across from a grass triangle that had a windmill on it. That was all there was. A big sign— billboards were legal then—had been erected where Hampton Road came down toward that little cluster of buildings. It read WELCOME TO WATER MILL. SPEED CONTROLLED BY RADAR. SLOW DOWN AND ENJOY IT.

There were almost no buildings whatsoever between Water Mill and Bridgehampton. There were a couple of churches as you left Water Mill—still there today, there was what looked like an old schoolhouse across from the recently built “Noah’s Arc church” by Mecox Lane, there was a gas station at Hayground, a carriage house next door to a Carvel that had just been built, and across from the Carvel was the new Bridgehampton Drive-In Movie Theater, about five years old at that time. (Today it is gone, replaced by the Bridgehampton Commons shopping center.)

Bridgehampton was a good-size town then, just about the same as it is today, except the stores were all mom and pop. There were six gas stations between the Drive-In and the Bridgehampton Founders Monument and there, at this monument, there was a traffic light, the next traffic light after the one in downtown Southampton. The Bridgehampton Bank Building was the anchor there. There was a butcher shop, a print shop, a plumbing shop, a hardware store (still there), a clothing store. There was no Starbucks—that they put in the bank building when the bank moved. There was the Candy Kitchen, the Pulver Gas building, the Community House and the firehouse.

Off in the distance to the north, particularly if you were there on a weekend, you could hear the noisy whine of racing cars roaring around a track up in the woods called the Bridgehampton Race Circuit. (Today a golf club called The Bridge). Professional racecar drivers held 500-mile races there, one of which, the Can-Am, attracted the greatest drivers in the world. Racing was also a big deal among the farmers then. They also flew small airplanes from grass strips and they took their farm equipment, when it broke, to one of the gas stations where mechanics could work on it. Bridgehampton was a town of grease and gasoline, potatoes and farmers and, in the summer, field workers who lounged on the street in their off hours and drank from bottles of Thunderbird wine inside plain paper bags. Not far away, the Agway store sold fertilizer and feed. The entire town was surrounded by potato farms, so it was this noisy, busy blue collar place in the middle of nowhere.

If you went straight from here, you went through all the open potato fields to Sagaponack. There were a few farm stands along the way. The Poxabogue Golf Course was not yet built. Just to the west was a New York State Police building (now Allstate). There was a restaurant called the Stage Door at the corner of Town Line Road and Montauk Highway today occupied by Townline BBQ. There were the Cozy Cabins a little further down and across from that a gay bar and nightspot called Out of This World. (It closed in the 1960s and reverted to woods.) There was an old car dealership (Chrysler then, then Plitt Ford for many years), and then on your left a gas station and boat showroom (Sleepy’s) and finally, on your right, overlooking Georgica Pond, a former two-story stucco home that had become a restaurant called Villa D’Or run by a famous celebrity New York City chef. (This is now Osteria Salina). This chef was the only celebrity chef in the Hamptons.

And something needs to be said about the three long farm roads that ran parallel to the Montauk Highway in Sagaponack. They were Parsonage Lane, Hedges Lane and Daniel’s Lane. At that time, all were just farm fields and farmhouses. You could see in every direction forever. Hedges Lane was named for the Hedges family, one of the founding families of Southampton. Today you can hardly see anything. And Hedges Lane is all hedgerows. You might think that’s why they call it Hedges Lane.

I have described every building I remember between Bridgehampton and East Hampton. Everything else was potato farms, views to the horizon and, an occasional billboard for a tractor company, a Chris-Craft boat or a kind of farm animal feed. There was no commercial shopping center at Wainscott, no post office, no traffic lights anywhere. It was all woods or farms or narrow two-lane roads. I have always been delighted that during my lifetime I’ve seen a whole new village rise up: Wainscott. It’s even got a traffic light.

From here on was the peaceful village of East Hampton, almost entirely private homes all the way to Town Pond and Main Street. There was no bowling alley, no Red Horse Market, no Jewish Center. There was only an old gas station where there is a newer one now at the corner of Highway Behind the Lots and Montauk Highway. And then the turn at Town Pond which led into the commercial district and the only other traffic light between downtown East Hampton and the Lighthouse.

I might note at this point that in 1956 Sag Harbor was only a diversion. There was almost no reason to go there. Between 1900 and 1945 there were numerous factories there where local people worked making things such as watchcases, gas caps and airplane parts. But when the Second World War ended, most factory owners packed up and left to open new factories in the South. All that remained was a tired, depressed downtown with lots of boarded-up stores and a few bars. The men were mostly out of a job and drinking too much. The number of residents in the town did not fill the available houses there. Sag Harbor had been in its heyday during the whaling era that had ended in 1849. In 1956, down those narrow little roads there were all these cottages with nobody living in them, many in a decrepit state. Oddly, there was still a very loud noon whistle calling the few factory workers, almost none of whom were left, to their lunch break. This was a very depressing place. Also oddly, when I look at the town today bursting with prosperity and tourism and with the little homes all restored, it is a shock to me to see the new McMansions of the past few years, which is in the middle of this very historic place, and consists of large private homes of 3,000 square feet and more plopped down next to the historic whaling cottages. Who could have allowed this?

East Hampton Main Street was another matter entirely. The set piece you see there today, with the stores at one end and the institutions at the other—library, newspaper office, Guild Hall, Town Pond, Clinton Academy—with historic homes lining Main Street between, were all there. If anything, it was even more spectacular than it is today. Lining both sides of Main Street were magnificent elm trees— 80 feet tall, 10-feet-in-diameter tree trunks—so big that where they overarched the wide Main Street with their leafy canopies, they met in the middle. On a sunny day in the summertime, Main Street was mostly in this great shadow through which you drove or walked as if you were going through a tunnel. You can still see this for one block coming down Woods Lane from the west. Now imagine it for half a mile. It all got Dutch elm disease in the 1970s and, one by one, these great trees had to be cut down. They’ve been replaced by elms that do not get Dutch elm disease, but these are much smaller. A few big old elms do remain.

In 1956, all the stores were mom and pop. There wouldn’t be a high-end fashionable store in that town until the mid 1970s. There was a five and ten, a stationery store, a souvenir shop, two luncheonettes. When I first arrived, there were two gas pumps on Newtown Lane, right on the sidewalk, just 50 steps from Main Street. They were in front of the police station, which was there on Newtown Lane. Next door on the corner was an old lady who sewed dresses and made hats. (Now Eli Tahari). Across the street was a pharmacy, a post office and Sam’s Italian Restaurant (still there), and stores all the way up to what is now the Middle School but was then the town’s high school.

As there was no further traffic light after the one in the center of this town, you could drive without delay through Pantigo, Amagansett and Montauk all the way out to the Lighthouse. Between East Hampton and Amagansett there was a motel, a big house turned into a restaurant called the Spring Close House, a garden center, a diner (still there), the Brent’s Store (still there) and a fuel oil complex (still there) and, across from the Spring Close House, a stable. There was no town hall there. It was an open field.

In 1956, we drove around in cars that had tailfins. They were noisy and smoke came out the back tailpipes. They had loud radios. Many were big old convertibles so the wind raced through your hair. None had seatbelts.

Amagansett had a school on Main Street, a lot of private homes on both sides, a restaurant, a post office, a few stores and on the corner where you entered town from the west, a gas station on the south side (still there.)

At the eastern end of Amagansett, where the firehouse is, you had to make a 90-degree turn to the right and head down toward the beach. Route 27 followed this road, Atlantic Avenue, one block down to Old Montauk Highway, where you made a left turn and headed straight as an arrow out to Napeague and Montauk. At that left turn, now in the middle of a residential area, there was the Seaside Inn (still there) and a gas station (all gone.) About three years after we moved out, somebody got this idea to build an extension of Main Street to the east. It couldn’t be called by-pass, because it didn’t bypass anything. It simply made it possible for drivers to go straight past the fire house, then bear slightly to the right and head down a long straight new road to link up with Route 27 further down. On this road today are the new Post Office, the IGA, a gas station and a deli (originally a Dodge car dealership). You would never know this was a road that had not been there until recently.

At the foot of the Montauk Highway as you drove down the big hill from Amagansett into Napeague, there were about 80 billboards mostly on the right side of the road, all advertising fishing boats in Montauk, motels, restaurants and boat rentals.

All along the Napeauge Stretch there was nothing for four miles. The scrub trees were so low you could look out and see the ocean half a mile away to the right, and you could see on the left the sand dunes that led out to the bay. A terrible smell permeated the highway there on certain days. The smell was from fish factories, huge plants by the bay where fishing boats docked to unload bags and bags of “bunker” fish into vats. The vats had boiling water in them, the fish were put in these vats and boiled up—smokestacks sent the fumes out for miles, and the fish were melted into a boiled mash to become glue, the glue put in barrels and the barrels put in railroad cars to be sent west to bottling plants where the glue was bottled for shipment to stores.

There had been six of these factories along this stretch before we came. There was only one left, because business for this sort of glue was coming to an end. This last factory shut down two years after we came, and then there was no more smell.

Montauk was a wild west town when we came. About 40 motels had been built in the ten years before we got there. My dad had bought the local pharmacy in that town, White’s. It was right on Main Street then, across from the Shagwong Restaurant & Bar. Montauk then was a fishermen’s paradise, with huge striped bass coming in at the docks, along with tuna, swordfish and mako. There were fishermen’s taverns, a big hotel on the hill (still there as Montauk Manor), and there were ranches out east toward the Lighthouse. The town in 1956 had no street furniture, sidewalks or curbs. People just pulled right up to the stores, facing them. And often people would ride horses into town from the ranches and tie them to telephone poles to do their shopping.

There were no beach stickers necessary to go to any of the beaches in Montauk, or anywhere else for that matter. You could just drive down to any road end, or to any beach pavilion (there were pavilions in East Hampton and Southampton) and you could park and go out and sunbathe. And that was it.

In 1956, Montauk was just forming itself into a little town. There was no Chamber of Commerce office, no library, no police annex, no town clerk’s building. There were just a few stores, a tackle shop, a souvenir shop, a pizzeria. It was truly an outpost.

And I, a refugee from the suburbs of Newark in New Jersey, where all the houses sat in rows with sidewalks and trees and curbs, fell instantly in love with this amazing place.

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